Thursday, 11 February 2010
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Mackellar proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The Government’s failure to recognise the achievements of older Australians.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
Thank you, Mr Speaker. My letter to you contains a sober reflection on something which is really a most serious problem—that is, the way the government is treating the achievements of senior Australians. It is the sneer in the voice. It is the pejorative language. It is the implication that all the problems that this government might face now in making projections—whether it be to raise taxes as in the ETS, a grand tax on everything, or other taxes—are the fault of senior Australians who are daring to live longer and healthier lives. That, indeed, is a cause for great joy; not a cause for insulting and demeaning those senior Australians who have built this country, raised families and given us the great prosperity that we enjoy.
With the production of the last Intergenerational report, we had from Mr Swan dire predictions about what a problem we were going to have to face and that senior Australians were definitely a problem that had to be dealt with. Whereas in fact there is nothing new in the statements that the Intergenerational report has made. The earliest publication on the fact that we are an ageing population were made as far back as 2001, when the first serious research was done by Access Economics, showing, quite frankly, that the way we have organised ourselves in Australia—with an age pension being paid out of consolidated revenue, not out of funds, like in other countries, which were going to go broke because they had not figured on people living so long—has made it quite sustainable and made us able to deal with it. One of the areas where we do have a serious funding problem is in our healthcare system. But the healthcare system is not a problem of the ageing of the population. It plays a very small part in the overall escalation of healthcare costs. To try and blame it on senior Australians and to try and make people feel bad that they are using the healthcare system that we have built up is in fact reprehensible.
Statistically speaking, we all use the healthcare system the most in the last two years of our life. I have never been prepared to say which will be the last two years of my life and I have never asked anybody else to do that either, because it is simply silly to do so. But what is real is that, if we use our healthcare system properly, use our pharmaceutical benefits system properly, use our private health insurance properly and take care of our public hospital systems properly, we will see something that we should all strive towards: the compression of morbidity. That is when the time that people are unwell or infirm or have some form of incapacity is compressed into a smaller and smaller time of life closer to the time of death.
Relevant to this whole question is the way in which the government is presently attacking the private health insurance system. Currently we have over nine million people who have private health insurance. It is a very sensible policy because it opens up an alternative to the overburdened public hospital system. We have an efficient private hospital system and it is the private health insurance organisations which finance it and enable it to be in place at all.
There was a time previously when, I guess, the infamous Senator Richardson spent most of his time trying to drive private health insurance down below 22 per cent, which would in fact have meant that the whole system would have collapsed. Fortunately, we on this side, even in opposition in those days, always maintained a strong and purposeful campaign to maintain a good private health insurance system. Finally, we prevailed. Since we brought in our reforms when we were in office we have seen a very high incidence of private health insurance. It has been a carrot and a stick. There is a surcharge if you are earning above, I think, $75,000 a year and if you do not have private health insurance you have to pay an additional one per cent levy. That is fair.
But we also said we would give a rebate if you took out private health insurance. We set it at 30 per cent initially because 30 per cent is about the rate of income tax that 80 per cent of the population pay. It is a good benchmark. We then said, ‘Medicare is available to everybody; therefore, the private health insurance rebate should be available to everybody who takes it out.’ The stipulation was that you could only have the rebate for private health insurance if you were eligible for Medicare. The two are inextricably linked, and it is fair and reasonable that we continue to see and support a private health insurance system.
If you look at older Australians, you will see that they value that private health insurance almost more than anything else. Indeed, the older our senior Australians become the more precious it is to them. They know that, due to the way Labor governments right across Australia have let our public hospital systems run down, their opportunity to have anything other than life-threatening incidents dealt with immediately in the public health system is very limited. They feel that they need that backup to know that they can have their doctor of choice and entry into a private health facility with that private health insurance.
This government has set out to penalise people. It has set out to take away that 30 per cent rebate for thousands upon thousands of Australians. Yet in the lead-up to the election, when Mr Rudd and the now Minister for Health and Ageing sat on this side of the House, they would stand up day after day and say they would not touch the private health insurance rebate—‘No, hand on heart, we won’t touch it. You can rely on it remaining with us.’
Indeed, they did write a letter. They gave every assurance to the Australian people that they would be a safe pair of hands if they were elected. How they have let the Australian people down. There is a litany of broken promises that we now see, where the government promised that it would not tamper with things that affect senior Australians in particular and yet it has. Look at superannuation: it ripped out of the system the benefits that we as a government put into it to allow people certainty.
Two of the favourite words that the government like to use are certainty and complexity. They have certainty when they say, ‘If we get our policy in it will be certain for this group or that group.’ But when they cannot answer the questions as to why it is unfair or why it will not work or why people cannot comprehend it, it is complexity. Those are their two favourite words. They are code words for saying, ‘We’re breaking a promise and we really don’t know how it’s going to work.’
There is the ETS that the government wants to impose and which it has just voted in favour of in this chamber. Let me point out that in this chamber the opposition has voted against that legislation every time it has been put into this chamber. It was also totally rejected in the Senate, as it will be again. Yet it wants to impose this huge tax on everything which will impact on people’s lives, particularly senior Australians. They will see the cascading effect of that tax which is placed on the very fundamentals we regard as essential to a civilised society—the ability to turn on the lights and the ability to have our cities lit so that we are not endangered by being knocked over or beaten up by somebody trying to pinch your handbag or whatever. That is a very real question, particularly for older Australian women who feel that they are intimidated and unable to get around unless there is light enabling them to feel safe. This tax would be put on this very fundamental energy source and cascade down through the price of everything: the price of petrol for their cars, the price of their cars, the price of their food, the price of their rent, the price of their house—everything. At the same time the government has ripped benefits out of the superannuation system, again putting doubts in people’s minds as to whether superannuation is a good investment for people to make.
Because we were solid about that in government we have seen people’s superannuation savings grow from around $450 billion to over a trillion dollars. This is because people did feel safe. When we said, ‘If you are over 60 and your superannuation stream of income comes from a source which is taxed, you will not have to pay tax on that,’ it was welcomed enormously by people who saw this as a chance to be able to live well in their older age and have a good life. Yet I meet people in the streets now who simply say, ‘I am scared stiff about my super,’ because they feel that it is under attack and because so many things that this government promised it would not touch it is touching.
When can we see the Henry report? Why won’t they release it so that we can all have a look? This is the same Mr Henry about whom, if you were in the Senate chamber any day this week and went through the budget forecasts, you would find that the figures are so rubbery that they cannot be justified. Since I have been in this place I do not think that I have ever seen one set of budget figures out of the Treasury that were accurate. Jokingly, we used to call them ‘jestimates’, not estimates. And this is the man who has been charged with the responsibility of looking at all of our taxation system? No, he was not allowed to look at the GST and he was not allowed to look at the ETS cascading tax.
So we are in this situation where we are far from saying to senior Australians, ‘You are making and continue to make a fantastic contribution to this country.’ Whether it is by remaining in the workforce, whether it is by paying tax through the GST, whether it is by paying tax on income that is not tax-free or whether it is by being volunteers and providing essential services without which our society could not exist, the worth and value of Australia’s seniors are huge. It is now up to this government to stop the demeaning, sneering attitude towards people who are senior Australians—and I put it to you: if you are over 50, you’re in.
Indeed, the new magazine launched today by Australian Seniors has none other than the Prime Minister and his wife on the front cover. I think that indicates that they want to identify with seniors. So why on the one hand do they want that identification and on the other hand sneer at the contribution of older Australians? I can tell you, people do not like it. If you read the front-page story in the Financial Review today, you will find that talkback radio, which comprises a very large audience of senior Australians, has seen through the dishonesty of the Prime Minister: his inability to tell the truth, his inability to honour his promises and his total inability to answer a straight question with a straight answer. Again and again it is coming through. It is a quite a revelation to read those comments from the leading talkback hosts around Australia.
So in saying that I condemn the government for not realising the worth of senior Australians, what I am really saying is that they deserve to be condemned—condemned for the demeaning attitude and the demonising attitude they have to senior Australians in saying that they are to be blamed for having a government that is not prepared to deal with its health system, not prepared to honour its superannuation system and prepared to go on a big spending binge—as they still are—with regard to the $21 billion of unspent stimulus, which is estimated to go on way past the next election and which is money that the Australian people are going to have to pay back.
Instead of attacking that cohort of Australians, laud them not only for the contribution they have made and the wisdom that they bring to bear but to thank them for being continuing contributing members of our society. They are vital. In the original research that I published back in 2001, chapter 2 was called ‘We’re all in it together’—and we are. We are one people; we are all of one company, and for a government to disparage and demean older Australians because they have reached a particular age, I think, is downright unAustralian. (Time expired)
I am certainly keen to contribute and to talk about how much this government values our older Australians and values the contributions that they have made to society. We recognise their many achievements as well. I will also point out many of the very definitive actions that the Rudd government has taken to assist our older Australians. We are certainly committed to building a health and aged-care system for Australia’s future. We have instigated pension reform. We have certainly taken some very decisive action to assist our older Australians. We look to the opposition, and they just look at having spending cuts and blaming someone else. They would be risking Australia’s future, risking the commitments that we have made to our older Australians.
Whilst we look at all the challenges that we have in our future and we discuss the challenges of our ageing population, we also recognise the wonderful opportunities that it brings us as a nation: the wonderful opportunities to relish the wisdom and experience of our older Australians and the remarkable contribution that they have made to our nation. And when we look at some of the actions that we have taken to assist our older Australians, there have been many that have been made in the two years since the Rudd government was elected. After 12 years of neglect when it came to so many areas that impacted on our older Australians—issues such as pension reform, health care and aged care—it has been the Rudd government that has taken very decisive action in those last two years in terms of providing vital services for our older Australians.
First and foremost is that of pension. Our pension reform was the most significant reform since the pension was introduced a hundred years ago. Indeed, this was a major issue amongst many older Australians right across our nation. The Rudd government understood many of the cost-of-living pressures that our older Australians had, and we did increase the pension. The total increase for single pensioners on the maximum rate was just over $70 a fortnight and for couples combined it was just over $29 a fortnight. We did that in recognition of the increasing cost of living that our pensioners faced. As I said, this was the first major pension reform in over a hundred years. If we look to the opposition, the fact is that they were in for 12 years and failed to have any major pension reform at all. In fact, just the other day I was having a read of the Leader of the Opposition’s book Battlelines. In it he says that people should not actually be eligible for the age pension until they are 70 years of age. I am sure it would be of major concern to many older Australians to hear that. He certainly is a risk to the future of all Australians, particularly our older Australians.
We also look to the major reforms that we have had, particularly when it comes to aged care. I would certainly like to point out many of the major achievements of the Rudd government in that area. We have more services for our older Australians. We also have more funding for those aged-care services. We are committed to more quality and accountability and we have improved those measures and also increased our investment in the aged-care workforce. Those extra services that are being provided are vitally important. Since the Rudd government was elected there are 10,000 more aged-care places across the country.
Our transitional care program has made a major difference in the lives of so many older Australians. Of those 2,000 transitional care places, 662 are now in place and operational. This makes a very big difference in terms of older people being able to leave hospital sooner. They are treated in a much more appropriate setting and it certainly has been great to see the success of that in making a difference in people’s lives. When it comes to providing future aged-care services, we have just had the latest aged-care approvals round, with more than 12,000 places in that round for 8,000 residential care places and 4,000 community care places. We understand that older people want to remain with their family, friends and communities and that is why we have those large numbers of places plus a $200 million capital assistance package as well.
When it comes to aged care we have provided much across the board to protect our older Australians and to provide services for them. We have improved the quality and accountability of our nursing homes. We have strengthened our police check requirements, we have improved the reporting requirements for missing residents and we have a website where people can check on the compliance history of a particular nursing home because we are committed to building an aged-care system for Australia’s future and we understand how important that is.
The shadow minister for seniors also mentioned health, which is somewhat remarkable considering the opposition leader as the minister for health in the Howard government ripped a billion dollars out of our health and hospital system. He froze the GP training places and he ignored the nursing shortage that we had in our health and hospital system. When we look at the achievements of the Rudd government in two years, we have made an investment to commit $64 billion to our health and hospital system over the next five years, put $600 million in our elective surgery program and invested $750 million in taking the pressure off our emergency departments. We have invested $1.1 billion in training initiatives. We understand how important it is to have a health and hospital system in place to provide services for Australians today and tomorrow. That is why we also have the National Health and Hospital Reform Commission process underway at the moment with more than 100 consultations into the future of our health and hospital system undertaken so far.
I want to touch on what the shadow minister for seniors was saying in relation to private health insurance. We recently saw the release of the Operations of the private health insurer’s annual report. Those who made dire predictions of a drop in the number of people in private health insurance funds were proved wrong yet again. The latest figures released just recently by the Private Health Insurance Administration Council showed the numbers of Australians taking out private health insurance continues to grow.
When we talk about the action we have taken to assist our older Australians and we outline increases in funding and services that we are providing and initiatives for training, one of the other major areas that we focus on is that of promoting healthy active ageing—providing support to our older Australians. We certainly know that our older Australians continue to contribute so much. No matter where I go, people will say that they are busier in retirement than when they were working because they are getting out there. Some people continue to work, some people volunteer, there are many people with major family commitments as well and the government supports them in many ways. One of our election commitments was to establish an Ambassador for Ageing. For the first time in Australia we have a person who is the Ambassador for Ageing to promote healthy ageing. We appointed Noeline Brown, who is an Australian icon. Noeline has done an outstanding job travelling the country talking to seniors’ groups about the contributions that they continue to make and she is truly remarkable. She is just over 70 and she does a remarkable job in assisting our older Australians and encouraging them. This was one of our major election commitments and it is also an acknowledgement of the role that our older Australians play. Noeline does an outstanding job.
The Intergenerational report the government released just last week was a very important report and it showed how critical it is to plan for the future and invest in productivity and participation whilst maintaining spending discipline. The report outlined many of the changes that we are going to see in the demographics of our nation and the increase in costs as well. In practical terms the ageing of the population means that between now and 2050 the number of people aged 65 to 84 will more than double and the number of people aged 85 and over will more than quadruple. That means the number of working people for every person aged 65 and over will fall from its current level of five to around 2.7.
This was a very important report in terms of the future and our future planning, which is of extreme importance. What we hear from the Liberal Party is that they are too backward thinking to come up with ideas for the future or to understand the reality for future generations and how we should be planning now. We certainly have a genuine plan for the future. They do not have any plans. They are a risk to the future because they are not looking at all the challenges that we face ahead.
As part of releasing the Intergenerational report we also launched a new $43.3 million Productive Ageing package. It provides vital training and support for older Australians who want to stay in the workforce, because we understand that there are many older Australians who would like to continue to work. That package includes 2,000 training packages for employers to allow eligible mature age workers to retrain as supervisors or trainers and also $500,000 in grants for Golden Gurus organisations. Golden Gurus is a wonderful initiative so that our younger Australians can learn from the wisdom and experience of our older Australians. That package also includes face-to-face job support and training for 2,000 eligible mature-age workers. We certainly have a lot of initiatives to help our older Australians who do want to continue to work.
I add that I am very lucky as the Minister for Ageing to meet with so many of the wonderful national groups that we have that do an outstanding job in providing services for our older Australians. Indeed, the shadow minister for seniors mentioned the launch of the revamped magazine 50 Something. This is a magazine that the National Seniors organisation put out. We were all pleased to be at the launch this morning. It was great to be there and to launch this revamp of this wonderful magazine with our Prime Minister on the front. It has a wonderful array of stories of interest to everyone. I will just read from the column provided by Michael O’Neill, who is the CEO of National Seniors Australia. He talks about the challenges we face in the future and the challenges that, as a nation, we have to work towards providing for. He says at the end of that column that we have to ‘seize the moment but allow the wisdom of decades past to guide the journey’. I think that really encapsulates all of the sentiments that National Seniors speak about and what this government believes.
We honour and respect our older Australians, and we do that through many avenues and also through the direct action we have in providing assistance for them. That is what is vitally important and what they require. We honour the fact that these are the people who built our nation. These are the people who worked hard, raised their families, paid their taxes, contributed so much and continue to contribute to that, and we certainly honour that and ensure that they are treated with dignity and respect, especially through government initiatives that make a real difference to their lives. Under the previous government we had 12 years of neglect when it came to planning and providing that support, and in the two years that the Rudd government has been in we have brought in pension reform and more services in our health and aged-care sector, because we understand that this is what is very important to older Australians.
What is very unfortunate is that the shadow minister for seniors, when you look at her record in government, just blamed everybody else for every problem and did not take responsibility for it at all. If we would like to talk about the Liberal Party and their approach to older Australians, I would like to remind the House of when the member for Sturt was the Minister for Ageing. I have come across an article from the Sunday Age from 6 May 2007, ‘I’m too young for this job, says aged-care minister’. The article goes on to say that he was:
Describing caring for the aged as an “unenviable industry” …
I think he really highlighted the Liberal Party’s perception of older Australians and the aged-care sector when he made those remarks. He said, ‘I’m too young and have a young family.’ He thought he was too young to be the aged-care minister. I think that is absolutely an insult to older Australians. I consider it an absolute honour and privilege to be the Minister for Ageing and to meet firsthand our remarkable older Australians, who contribute so much to this nation. This government values all of those contributions that they have made, and we respect them and treat them with absolute dignity. Most importantly, we continue to provide all the reforms that are necessary for those people in providing support for their lives.
After 12 years of neglect, we have acted swiftly and decisively to provide for our older Australians, because we understand how important that is. We also understand—the Liberal Party does not understand—how we have to be planning for the future and our future ageing populations as well. We are tackling all of the challenges in front of us as a nation. What we have instead with the coalition is just a risk. They do not understand the issues and the challenges. It is the Rudd government that understands those challenges and, of course, one of those major challenges is the ageing of our population. We have certainly looked to the future and those challenges, and in doing so we totally respect our older Australians and the remarkable contributions they have made.
Dilemma or deception? That is the question that needs to be asked about the government’s spin on the recently released Intergenerational report. The dilemma is how to plan for a future with a growing disproportion of older people and still balance the budget. The deception is government propaganda that would have us believe that older Australians are a burden. Older Australians are at risk of becoming a scapegoat. To paraphrase the Old Testament’s Leviticus, older Australians are the government’s symbolic goat sent by the high priest into the wilderness with the sins of the people laid on its back.
The challenges cannot be realistically addressed if the government is preoccupied with looking for easy targets. The government will make older Australians the scapegoat and peddle this propaganda to frighten us into believing that there is a need to reduce services, increase taxes, massively increase the population by migration and force older Australians to work till they drop. The challenges highlighted in this Intergenerational report are not new and should not come as a surprise. The purpose behind this report should be to enable the government to plan effectively for the future, not to enable the government to intimidate older citizens.
Basically the report argues that government spending will outgrow revenue by 2050. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 8 February titled ‘Intergenerational tale distorts ageing problem’, leading economic writer Ross Gittins says the budgetary cost of an ageing population is ‘exaggerated’. He unmasks the deception when he posits that the government makes its case by:
… lumping in with the rising cost of the age pension, aged care and healthcare spending directly related to ageing, the projected growth in healthcare spending arising from a larger population and the populace’s predicted ever-greater demand for more and better healthcare.
The kindest complexion you could put on that is that it is very disingenuous of the government, but I will leave others to make that judgment. The article goes on to point out that the actual budgetary cost of ageing is both ‘modest’ and ‘manageable’. The real problem is how we fund ‘the expected strong growth in the quantity and quality of health care’ for everyone. That is a problem which is not just to do with ageing. Rather than blame the blow-out in costs on seniors and target cuts to health services to seniors, the government needs to resolve to fix the entire health system, a core election promise it has not yet fulfilled.
As remarked by Mr Gittins, if the government wants to cap taxation at 23.5 per cent of GDP and gloss over the role that increasing taxes or holding off on tax cuts could have in addressing the fiscal gap, there is no other way than to make older Australians pay. We have already seen this in the government’s asinine cost-saving attempt to reduce the Medicare rebate for cataract surgery.
The government should balance the budget by eliminating their own wasteful spending rather than robbing older Australians of dignity in retirement—for which they have already paid. Using the intergenerational issue to argue for a massive increase in population is a fallacy. It is not axiomatic that a massively increased population will result in a higher standard of living or higher productivity—indeed, it is likely to bring greater budgetary pressures to bear. To date, the government has demonstratively failed to deliver on its promise to improve hospital services, telecommunications, roads, water and the environment. Before we add roughly another 15 million people to our population the government must deliver a comprehensible and believable policy on infrastructure development and carry through with it.
If we are serious about increasing productivity, much more could be done to manage the more fantastical claims of the unions for wage hikes that bear no correlation to increased productivity and have only resulted in increased strike action. Failure to manage wage increases and strike action is the real threat to productivity, not older Australians. If, though, the government genuinely wants to give older Australians the option of contributing to increased productivity by retiring later, then rather than token measures, the government needs to provide attractive tax and superannuation measures to retirees to work beyond retirement age.
Last year the government introduced legislation and breached yet another of their election promises, cutting the superannuation co-contribution scheme. Any contributions to superannuation over $50,000 are now punitively taxed. As Piers Akerman noted in the Daily Telegraph yesterday:
… nearly two million Australians will wake to find that they have been caught out by this broken promise and hundreds of thousands of others will discover that their retirement and superannuation plans have been destroyed …
This is not the work of a government trying to encourage self-reliance in retirement; this is false economy. Much more needs to be done to encourage superannuation savings now if the budget is going to balance in 2050.
Much more needs to be done about age discrimination in the workplace. Although there are legislative instruments to prevent ageism, there needs to be a deeper attitudinal shift. It is unfortunate that the government’s recent rhetoric does little to promote this. Their discourse has been one in which older Australians are viewed as a burden on the economy. We need to protect and promote flexible employment, not reintroduce a rigid system which curtails it. For many older people, the choice between continuing to work full time or retiring is not one they always want to make, nor should they have to. Many would like to continue in the paid workforce, albeit on a less demanding basis. If flexible workplaces were enabled, the wealth of knowledge, experience and the wisdom of older workers could continue to be utilised to increase productivity.
There are more than financial benefits that will come from removing the barriers to a more flexible workplace for seniors. Studies show that encouraging older people to remain in the workforce has both physical and mental health benefits. Working beyond retirement is not for everyone, but it is too simplistic to assume that when a person retires they will no longer contribute to the productivity of the nation. Although this contribution may not be directly quantifiable in terms of our GDP, the volunteering and caring role that many older Australians undertake on retiring is vital to Australia’s productivity. This contribution needs to be better understood and recognised. In the interests of a balanced argument the government must initiate a new Productivity Commission report into the value that is added by older Australians. Many retirees will spend their time caring for grandchildren or partners, a caring role that would otherwise tie up already stretched resources.
In our deliberations on the challenges of a changing demographic, let us reflect on the disingenuousness of the government in portraying seniors as a drag on the economy and set the record right. Older Australians are our nation builders and defenders. They have contributed tax for several decades and their ongoing voluntary contributions to the nation can never be measured solely in economic terms. On this side of the House we will continue to defend, with great muscularity, their right to respect, their right to dignity and their right to be valued beyond mere economic units.
In the minute and a half that I think I now have, I first of all want to take this opportunity to completely dispel any thinking that people listening to this debate may have that the recognition and care—particularly recognition—by the government or by the community at large of our older Australians is merely the thought of those opposite. I take offence at that, and I want to put that completely straight immediately. It is not a political plaything to say, ‘We care about older Australians more than you do.’ I think we all do. And I think the actions of the government—in the past, currently and into the future—reflect that.
When we talk about health issues, this government has, for the first time in many years of government in this country I think, actually talked about preventative health programs—something that will really assist our older people with living active, participatory lives into their future. Secondly, it is completely correct to say that older Australians, should they wish to work longer, should be allowed to and encouraged to. At the same time, should they not be in a position to have to or should they not wish to, their work in our community, contributing in other ways, is equally valuable, equally measured and equally recognised. What some of our younger members of the community might care to do is step up to the voluntary roles that a lot of those older people are doing and to assist them in carrying that work out.